The battery debate: Lithium and the circular economy

With battery recycling, true progress means going in circles. So what's going on with the lithium batteries today?

As predicted, battery-powered electric vehicles have taken at least a decade to reach a significant level of general car-buyer acceptance. Globally, 10 per cent of all new cars sold in 2022 were EVs. Last year in the UK, that metric was 16.6 per cent. According to the SMMT, new registrations of electric cars rose by more than 40 per cent from 190,727 (in 2021) to 267,203. 

With the gong for the cheapest electric car currently belonging to the two-seat Smart ForTwo which starts at a little more than £22k, high purchase prices remain an issue. Even with the anticipated influx of Chinese-built EVs, that situation is unlikely to change given the massive demand-induced pricing pressures on the raw materials used in batteries, China’s ever-increasing labour costs, and impressive product quality gains. However, range anxiety, charging times and infrastructure concerns appear to be diminishing at different rates. EV ownership frustrations generally centre around the limited availability of fast- and especially rapid-charging (25-99kW) stations which are just not being installed at the required rate. To meet the government’s target of 300,000 chargers by 2030, installations would need to exceed 100 per day. In reality, figures from late 2022 revealed the daily average is just 23. Allied to that, the cost of using a rapid-charging facility has increased by around 50 per cent since the start of 2022.

Mini Cooper SE Convertible
EV charger installations would need to exceed 100 per day to meet the government’s target of 300,000 by 2030

While sticker price, charging convenience and the rising cost of electricity are the most obvious barriers to EVs making further market gains over fossil-fuelled cars, there’s another, arguably more important issue at stake here, and that is the murky-as-heck ‘green’ credentials of electric vehicles. Disregarding the two disparate views on the need to decarbonise the planet, most Northern Hemisphere countries are hell-bent on making private transportation 100 per cent battery driven, all in the name of saving the planet. I am – as I’m sure many of you are too – not qualified to scientifically judge the Earth-harming effects of burning refined oil for energy over blowing up a mountain for its coal or scraping vast tracts of land for its lithium. I mention coal because burning it, along with natural gas, is still the primary source of much of the world’s electricity supply. It’s true that many renewable (solar, wind and wave) electricity plants are being added to the supply annually but relying increasingly on them and their inherently variable outputs will necessitate massive lithium-ion battery stations to regulate and stabilise national grids once we’re all weaned off coal and nuclear.

So, unless there is a major breakthrough in battery storage tech, a truly green, EV-only world is going to need all the lithium it can extract. EV batteries do incorporate other high-value materials, too, such as nickel, cobalt and manganese but lithium is the key element. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, current estimates of world lithium reserves stand at 88 million tonnes. Given existing technology and basic economics, only around a quarter (22 million tonnes) of these reserves can be profitably mined. Last year, 130,000 metric tonnes of lithium were produced globally, up from 107,000 in 2021. This 21% year-on-year increase may seem impressive but not when you realise it’s only up 27% compared to 2018’s output of 95,000 metric tonnes. The general consensus is that lithium supply is growing at less than half the pace of EV demand. S&P Global forecasts lithium demand will hit 2 million tonnes by 2030, requiring a 22-fold increase in production from 2020 levels.

Nissan Leaf
Globally, 10 per cent of all new cars sold in 2022 were EVs. Last year in the UK, that metric was 16.6 per cent

The amount of lithium required to make an electric car battery varies considerably depending on capacity and chemistry but a broadly accepted average is 8kg per car battery. Currently, lithium is obtained by just two methods: it’s either dug directly out of deposits embedded in rock or extracted from watery, salty brines in an evaporation process that takes anywhere from 18 months to two years. Brine from underground aquifers is pumped to the surface and into vast evaporation pools. Mining just 1 tonne of lithium from rock deposits requires an estimated 350 tonnes of earth to be moved by heavy-duty diesel-guzzlers while extracting one tonne of lithium from the brine pool process uses an estimated 500,000 litres of water. Both methods obliterate the area’s biodiversity and leave vast tracts of land depleted, scarred and poisoned unless a profit-stripping clean-up is undertaken. Spoiler alert: this is not likely to happen voluntarily! 

It doesn’t take much grey matter to realise that if demand grows at the expected rate the prospect of running out of cost-effectively minable lithium within the next two decades is a very real one. Fortunately, there is a conscience-appeasing solution to the murkiness: recycle end-of-life batteries, thereby limiting the need to mine virgin metals once there are sufficient quantities in global use. Fortunately, the qualities of the raw materials used mean that they can be recycled without degradation again and again indefinitely, eventually creating a much less wasteful and far cleaner, truly circular economy.

Volkswagen ID.3
Volkswagen ID.3 chassis and battery configuration

Encouragingly, this is not the pipe dream it once was. While recycling lithium batteries using pyrometallurgy (smelting shredded batteries) or hydrometallurgy (stripping via water and chemicals) has proved more costly than using virgin material, innovative new methods are disrupting the recycling world. One such method, developed and employed by Ascend Elements, is called Hydro to Cathode. The tech transforms, for example, a 10-year-old EV battery, via a water-based solution containing lithium, cobalt and nickel atoms into a new cathode-active material. Ascend Elements claim the final product is 90 per cent cleaner and 50 per cent cheaper to produce than one made from virgin materials – that’s progress worth getting amped up for.

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